The last Monday of each May has been set aside by national decree as a day of remembrance for those who have died while fighting in our nation’s wars. But for many in places like Baltimore City, the beat of the war drum is not a phenomenon of foreign theaters or something encountered in history books, but the exhaustingly persistent tempo of a daily existence lived in the penumbra of traumatizing violence.
In 2012, the last year for which complete data are available, Baltimore City saw 216 murders, 317 rapes, 3,635 robberies, and 4,657 aggravated assaults, according to data available on the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention website.
In April of this year, 14 year-old Najee Thomas became the eighth person age 18 or younger murdered in Baltimore City in 2014 after being felled by gunfire in Cherry Hill, according to homicide data collected by the Baltimore Sun which counts 75 total homicides in Baltimore this year so far. A week prior to Thomas’s murder, 17-year-old Michael Mayfield, a promising young man weeks away from his high school graduation, was murdered as he sat in a minivan parked outside his uncle’s house in West Baltimore. Tyquane Fetter, 18; Raysharde Sinclair, 18; Gregory Ware Jr., 18; Jowan Henry, 17; Lavar Crawford, 16; and Dejuan Willis, 17 were the others aged 18 and under who fell to violence this year.
In nearby Washington D.C., 17 year-old Jonathan Adams was stabbed to death in February, while two infant homicides that occurred in late 2013 were classified as murders and closed with arrests.
Prince George’s County saw three-year-old Jayson Holland die of a drug overdose this past January that police believe was too large to have been a case of accidental ingestion. His father, Thomas Holland, has been taken into custody and charged with first degree child abuse and manslaughter.
On May 10, Akinleye Warner, also of Prince George’s County, was stabbed to death while reportedly accompanying three acquaintances to a drug transaction.
The effects of traumatic events such as these ripple well beyond their immediate vicinities or victims and can place a particularly heavy burden on youth forced to constantly re-navigate a grief process for which even adults are rarely adequately prepared.
“Most of us who live or work in Baltimore have been traumatized by the violence,” said Dr. Philip Leaf, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, in an interview with the AFRO.
Dr. Leaf served as the director of the Baltimore Child Development-Community Policing Program (CDCPP), a program that ran 1996-2009, seeking to reduce the occurrence and effects of violence in Baltimore City by working with victims and communities in which violence occurred.
According to Leaf, the process of grieving usually lessens the impact of trauma over time. In places like Baltimore city, however, children—whose brains are not fully developed until their 20s—are often afflicted by new traumas before that grieving process has had a chance to run its course.
The post-traumatic stress caused by this persistent experience of trauma can lead to aggressive or hypervigilant behaviors that are too often mistaken for disciplinary problems rather than recognized as the coping mechanisms of persons not yet emotionally equipped to handle post-traumatic stress in a healthier way.
The Rev. Dr. Andre Humphrey worked with Dr. Leaf on the CDCPP and continues to serve as a community liaison for the Baltimore City Police Department, reaching out to the families of victims of violence.
Rev. Humphrey, himself a victim of trauma when his son was murdered in 1997, feels that in order for there to be an effective reduction in the amount of violence suffered in Baltimore City, the relationship between the police and the community has to improve. Such an effort, Humphrey believes, requires a better appreciation for the fact that many young people get involved with drugs and crime not because they lack goodness, but because they feel a pressure to find some way to support their families financially.
“I’m not saying that if the police encounter a criminal, they’re supposed to have ice cream and cake with them,” said Rev. Humphrey in an interview with the AFRO, “but treat them like a human being.”
The Rev. Willie Ray, founder of Save Another Youth, a nonprofit working to reduce violence among young people in Baltimore City, made a similar point, noting that young gang members “greet each other with affection. . . . so they’re not far from being reached.”
Rev. Ray feels that more adults who have successfully navigated the difficult conditions of Baltimore City need to become engaged as mentors to young people struggling to do the same, rather than be lulled into complacency by the comfort they have achieved.
Ray is also campaigning for local churches to purchase vacant buildings in their surrounding areas to convert them into facilities where young people can spend their time rather than on the streets.
Both of the ministers noted that the city has shut down many recreation centers in a conversation with the AFRO, marking a decided lack of financial investment in youth that abandons them to the streets. Rev. Humphrey said more funding should be made available not only to serve youth, but to address the needs of victims of trauma, a lack of support that has limited his efforts to expand his work throughout Baltimore.
Dr. Leaf notes that, while there are many great mental health clinicians and initiatives operating in Baltimore City, the immensity of the problem of violence continues to outpace the available resources.
Latrina Antoine and Courtney Jacobs contributed to this report.